As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with Green Bay at Lambeau Field, we asked Tyler Dunne, who covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) The Green Bay defense holds a healthy respect for Adrian Peterson.
It’s not just that Peterson ran for 210 yard in the teams’ last meeting four weeks ago. In his career, he also has rushing performances of 192, 175 and 131 against Green Bay. And there’s definitely an awareness that A.P. is now just 102 yards shy of 2,000 for the season and 208 away from breaking Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season rushing record.
No wonder so many defensive players in Green Bay gush with admiration over Peterson’s ability.
“It’s pretty wild,” Dunne said. “Every time you bring up Peterson’s name, you see these guys shake their heads and proclaim him to be a beast. A lot of it is just familiarity. They see this guy twice a year. And they understand the power, the strength, the resilience Peterson plays with. They really hold a glowing respect for how he runs.”
Coach Mike McCarthy has tried to temper his team’s praise, hoping they don’t become so enamored with Peterson’s abilities that they forget how to bottle him up. Paramount this week for Green Bay will be tackling better to avoid the Peterson home run. In Week 13, the Vikings star had runs of 82, 48 and 23.
2) With all due respect to Peterson, Aaron Rodgers might be the NFL’s most dangerous player.
The Green Bay quarterback isn’t necessarily delivering the Xbox statistics he had in 2011 when his MVP run included 68.3 percent accuracy, 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns, six interceptions and a rating of 122.5. But Rodgers has continued to carry the Packers’ offense.
Through 15 games, he’s completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,930 yards with 35 TDs and eight picks plus a 106.2 rating. Throughout the season, with opposing defenses often keeping both safeties deep to guard against the explosive play, Rodgers has been forced into a bit of small ball. But he’s remained patient and taken what’s there. He’s also been clutch when the Packers have needed him to be.
“Overall,” Dunne said, “it’s just seemed like this season unlike last year, he’s had to produce so much more in the fourth quarter. They’ve had so many close games. And when Rodgers has had to convert a third-and-long or make a play with his feet or lead a big drive late in the game, he’s stepped forward. Last season, they were so often ahead by double digits late that they didn’t need him to fight back.”
Rodgers’ savvy is particularly notable against division foes. It’s no wonder Green Bay hasn’t lost an NFC North game since Dec. 2010, a streak of 12 straight wins.
3) The Packers are in a groove right now.
Since early October, Green Bay is 9-1 and staking a claim to the title as the NFL’s hottest team. They provided significant supporting evidence last weekend with a 55-7 thrashing of Tennessee.
In total, Green Bay put up 460 yards of offense. Rodgers threw three TD passes and rushed for another score. And defensively, the Packers compiled seven sacks, two turnovers and didn’t allow a score until 1:39 remained.
“What surprised me most wasn’t there wasn’t a flood of fluky stuff in that game,” Dunne said. “There wasn’t a defensive touchdown or a special teams touchdown. All their points and all the production they had came in the way they’d want to put up points.”
Perhaps, most importantly, Green Bay has found a way to fortify its ground game. Sure, they rush for an average of only 108.7 yards per game, 20th in the NFL. And their leading rusher for the season is Alex Green, whose 464 yards trail Peterson by 1,434. But as the backfield merry-go’round spins, suddenly Ryan Grant and DuJuan have stepped forward. That duo rushed for 109 yards and three touchdowns last weekend.
Said Dunne: “These are two ordinary midseason pickups. And yet their running game was terrific last week. And it’s kind of like, no matter who they’ve been plugging in there the past month and a half, they’ve been a top 10 rushing team. That’s big. Because with so many Cover 2 defenses sitting back in coverage, that can put Green Bay’s offense in a bit of a bind. But with a running game now, they’re able to stay patient. And McCarthy, who loves to pass and loves to push the envelope, has actually been very, very committed to running the ball.”
Defensively, the Packers are also seeing noticeable growth from a horde of young players in the secondary with Casey Hayward, M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillan and Davon House on the rise.
“As those guys have come along, [defensive coordinator] Dom Capers has progressively added more and more and more to what they do,” Dunne said.
4) Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby has been given a second chance. And a third. And a fourth …
Patience in the kicker is quickly wearing thin amongst the Green Bay fan base. And understandably so. Crosby is 19-for-31 on field goals this season, his 61 percent accuracy ranking dead last in the NFL. He’s also missed seven of eight attempts from 50 yards or beyond.
But General Manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy have resisted the temptation to yank the plug on Crosby.
“Those guys always stand behind their players,” Dunne said. “They draft, they develop, they hang onto guys.”
There are likely business elements to things too. Two years ago, Crosby signed a five-year extension worth $14.75 million. But the Packers also feel Crosby can fight through this out-of-nowhere slump.
“He’s been around since ’07 and has been reliable over the long haul,” Dunne said. “And he kicks well later in the season. Which is one of the reasons they really like him. And last year, he had a run where he hit 16 consecutive field goals.”
With wins in nine of their past 10 games, Green Bay is confident they can compensate for Crosby’s woes. Though it’s a dangerous thing to roll into January with an unreliable kicker.
Said Dune: “It could cost them in the playoffs. But I guess at this point, they’re determined to just ride it out. The Packers’ big thing is to never show signs of panic and this might be the prime example of it.”